Hair Tomorrow

In 1990, as the length of manned space missions began to increase dramatically, NASA’s Richard Haines began to wonder: On an extended mission, how could crew members groom themselves without leaving bits of hair and beard floating about the cabin?

His solution was a clear plastic bubble fitted with slits for a groomer’s hands, as well as a vacuum hose. The same apparatus can be used for almost any grooming task, including haircuts, shaving, and manicures.

“The device may also be used to collect the aerosol droplets of hair spray or small powder residue and the residue of other cosmetics which otherwise would float freely throughout the cabin.”

Pedal Pusher

Inventor Warren C. Schroeder offered a novel energy saver in 1981 — a sail for bicycles:

[The] sail … can be erected, dismantled or removed in seconds and … can take advantage of the wind direction in an arc that exceeds 200 degrees. The sail can be reoriented by the operator from the bicycle seat while in operation of the cycle. This allows operator to take full advantage of the full effective wind directional range and change. The use of the sail improves visibility of the bicycle from other vehicle operators thereby improving the safety of the cyclist.

“The bicycle sail allows the cycle enthusiast an inexpensive means of free transportation energy — the wind, ‘sailing on wheels.'” Stopping may be another matter.

“The Bender”

Scientific American examined a novel idea in 1854: a jointed ship whose fore and aft sections can rise and fall independently on the waves. The ship would then flex with each swell, and a chain extended between the masts could drive a paddlewheel amidships. “The hope is cherished that this Bender, whether in the form of a small boat for harbor use, or in a vessel of larger size, will demonstrate the practicability of using the wave power in moving against a head-wind.”

I don’t know how far they pursued the idea. A shipbuilder named George Steers declared himself “ready to undertake the construction of such a vessel for any parties that may apply to him.”


In 1998 Tennessee inventor Thomas Bennington conceived a novel way to make a wind-resistant house: Mount a decommissioned airliner on a rotating pillar. “The design and configuration of the fuselage enables it to always point into the wind, thereby presenting the smallest cross-sectional area to the destructive wind forces.”

Bennington envisions the house contending successfully with thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hurricanes. “Market forces have made certain types of commercial aircraft structures similar in cost per square foot to that of conventional ground-based dwellings. Such aircraft include Boeing 727s that have been removed from active service. Of course, the quality of the materials used in the fabrication of and the engineering associated with such aircraft are far superior than those seen in most wood-framed homes.”


We are sick of the röntgen rays … you can see other people’s bones with the naked eye, and also see through eight inches of solid wood. On the revolting indecency of this there is no need to dwell.

Pall Mall Gazette, March 1896

Water Bed

Edward Brown’s ill-considered “hammock canoe,” patented in 1884, can be suspended between trees like a conventional hammock or launched on a river like a bottomless aquatic coffin:

On the sides of the main structure or frame handles or holding means are provided, by means of which the person using the device can support the same while walking or floating with their body protruding through the opening in the netting or floor of the float. In addition to the handles I can employ a strap or band adapted to pass over the shoulders of the person using the device.

It’s not clear to me how someone can walk, float, lie, stand, and carry a boat at the same time. Perhaps I should get one and try it out.

A Leg Up

Allison Andrews had a brainstorm in 1999: If our pants could be easily divided in two, then we could mix and match their halves:

This system saves money by providing a pair of pants that is selectable from the set of all combinations of the left legs against the right legs. Since most members of the combination set do not physically exist at any given time, the user has a large selection set for a fraction of the price.

This way, your wardrobe increases geometrically with each new purchase.

Extra Credit

Boeing was demonstrating its new Dash-80 airliner for the nation’s air transport executives in Seattle in August 1955 when test pilot Alvin “Tex” Johnston decided to impress them — instead of a simple flyover he performed a barrel roll:

In 1994, just before test pilot John Cashman undertook the maiden flight of the 777, Boeing president Phil Condit told him, “No rolls.”

Sudden Stop

One last odd weapon, this from Popular Science, September 1917: Enid S. Wales of Detroit proposed a shell that would spread coils of barbed wire before an onrushing enemy, stopping their progress and exposing them to attack by infantry and machine guns.

Four hollow caps containing coils of barbed wire would be fitted to a trench mortar shell, one end of each coil secured to the body of the shell. “When the projectile explodes, the caps containing the barbed wire shoot out like bullets in all directions distributing the wire in great tangled masses.”

I don’t know if the idea was ever put into practice.

Things to Come

doughty shell

This is remarkable: In 1862, U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton received a letter proposing the use of chlorine gas against the Confederate army, an idea 50 years ahead of its time. The inventor was John W. Doughty of New York City:


The above is a representation of a projectile which I have devised to be used as a means for routing an entrenched enemy. Believing it to be new and valuable, I send the War Department a brief description: Chlorine is a gas so irritating in its effects upon the respiratory organs, that a small quantity diffused in the atmosphere, produces incessant & uncontrollably violent coughing.It is 2 1/2 times heavier than the atmosphere, and when subjected to a pressure of 60 pounds to the inch, it is condensed into a liquid, its volume being reduced many hundred times. A shell holding two or three quarts, would therefore contain many cubic feet of the gas.

If the shell should explode over the heads of the enemy, the gas would, by its great specific gravity, rapidly fall to the ground: the men could not dodge it, and their first intimation of its presence would be by its inhalation, which would most effectually disqualify every man for service that was within the circle of its influence; rendering the disarming and capturing of them as certain as though both their legs were broken.

The War Department, which was flooded with well-meant but impractical suggestions, let this one go, and chlorine gas would not appear on the battlefield until Ypres in 1915.

“Experiment alone can determine whether this shell has any practical merit,” Doughty had written. “Possibly, I overrate its value; but it must not be forgotten, that while it does the work of an ordinary shell, it also carries with it a force against whose effect the most skillful military engineering can not possibly make any adequate provision.”

“As to the moral question involved in its introduction, I have, after watching the progress of events during the last eight months with reference to it, arrived at the somewhat paradoxical conclusion, that its introduction would very much lessen the sanguinary character of the battlefield, and at the same time render conflicts more decisive in their results.”